A feminist's complicated take on Hugh Hefner and Playboy

The death of Hugh Hefner, at 91, gave me pause to consider his legacy.
Was Hefner a beacon of freedom for the first wave of women’s liberation fighters, urging them to break free of societal norms and enjoy their bodies? Was he a purveyor of pornography and narcissism in its most virulent form? Was he right to hire his ‘Bunnies’ and make them walk with ears, a puffy little tail and high heels?

Or…did he really set men and women free to explore their more sexual, prurient selves? As Hefner told Time Magazine about his growing up on Chicago’s West Side:

“There was a great deal of repression in their lives and the way they were raised and, in turn, the way I was raised. I escaped early on into dreams and fantasies fueled by music and movies.”

And he worked hard to flip the narrative on what exploitation was. For Hef, it seemed, it was the notion of hurting someone through sexual conquest.

Women are the major beneficiaries of getting rid of the hypocritical old notions about sex…Now, some people are acting as if the sexual revolution was a male plot to get laid. One of the unintended by-products of the women’s movement is the association of the erotic impulse with wanting to hurt somebody.” (Source: Fox News)

I did actually think that the sexual revolution was a male plot to get laid for most of my childhood. His magazine, after all, for most of my male friends, was a ‘stroke book’ that couldn’t attract me. And as a Title IX feminist, I was all about “I am woman, hear me roar!” No one was going to exploit MY body for sexual purposes!

And I had my parents’ personal take to contend with. My mother knew of Hugh Hefner in his pre-Playboy days. They both worked at Esquire Magazine in the early 1950’s. My mother edited their employee newsletter, and he was a copywriter. Though she never met him, she heard of his reputation, and steered clear. And both my mom and dad loathed him.

But back to this man’s legacy.

The only thing I know for sure is that Hugh Hefner’s memory and legacy will certainly be complicated.

In his life, the man called ‘Hef’ was, by turns,  a civil rights advocate, an exploiter of women, a family man who raised four children in two very different generations, and a staunch proponent of First Amendment rights.

I knew people who loved him. Gretchen Edgren went to my church and was an editor at Playboy in Chicago for decades, editing the 50th Anniversary commemorative book. ChicagoNow columnist Candace (Collins) Jordan Playboy as a young woman. Her take included the following:

“Hell, he even hosted weddings, showers and even baby showers for past girlfriends at the Mansion. And I know for a fact that, for some of them, when funds were low, he helped them out.  That is not the M.O. for a man who dislikes or mistreats women.”

My first memory of Hef was a front-page story in the Chicago Tribune, announcing that the 40-something man was in a relationship with 18-year-old Barbi Benton. I loathed him for his ‘Playboy Philosophy’ of life, because it was reserved for men only.

But there was this other side of Hefner that confused and fascinated me. His civic side was right on, fighting on my side of the civil rights movement. Sure, ‘Playboy After Dark’ featured scantily dressed Playboy bunnies of all nationalities, but also Sammy Davis, Jr., Dick Gregory, and Ella Fitzgerald. At the Playboy Clubs, they didn’t have to stay in the servant’s quarters.

One of my social service agencies was a beneficiary of his extraordinary philanthropy. When I was Director of Development for a small, struggling nonprofit, The Playboy Foundation donated its vast printing services to us. Without them, we couldn’t have published our new brochures for several years. They did it gratis. He was at the forefront of LGBTQ rights as well.

So how can we remember Hugh Hefner? Not as a demon, not as a saint, for sure. Let’s let Hef himself have the final word:

In 2003, Elon Green of the New York Observer asked Hefner what he would like his epitaph to be. The mogul responded: “[He] had some positive impact on changing the sexual and social values of his time — and had a lot of fun in the process.”


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